David Ryan



Talking Painting

Talking Painting


Interview with Tom Nozkowski New York 1996


David Ryan: Your work is well known for its intimacy, with its centralisation of silhouetted motifs and a corresponding psychological engagement with the viewer that has often been remarked upon. Has the work always dealt with these issues?...
Thomas Nozkowski: Well actually, no. I went to art school in New York in the sixties and after this I made extremely large paintings that were systems based. So there were paintings of dashes, paintings of dots, etc....things covered with marks in a regular sort of way. Now, one day, I realised that what I liked in these large, complex, systematic paintings, was when ‘things’ would appear; ‘images’ would appear by default. This was residual and accidental to the system in question but it was the thing that engaged me most. One day it just hit me that maybe I was using these systems as a way of avoiding responsibility, and that if I was interested in image-making, then I should make images as directly as I possibly could. At the same time I was involved in politics, and in my politics I wanted things to be as clear and honest as possible, so it seemed necessary to change my procedure.
DR: With what kind of politics were you involved?
TN: Radical politics: race, Vietnam, sexuality. Because of the political thing, I wanted to stop doing large paintings; somehow I wanted to do paintings that fit into ‘normal’ rooms, paintings that weren’t appropriate to bank lobbies, and which would look ‘useless’ in the institutions. I now have another argument with this idea, but at the time it seemed relevant and I started working with this sixteen by twenty inch format.
DR: Did this almost improvisatory approach to form immediately follow suit with this process of scaling down?
TN: Actually, at the same time I had a little bit of success as a sculptor, and this is quite odd because I really loved painting and the sculpture was just something else I did. But the seventies weren’t a very good time for painting. I’d have collectors come around and I’d show them some paintings, maybe like this one over here...and I remember in particular one famous museum-guy, who said, “Oh...very nice. Did your psychiatrist tell you to work like this?”...[laughs] At that moment, painting was supposed to be gigantic, monochromatic and with as little incident as possible.
DR: So it was a kind of image-painting that you developed from this time?
TN: Yes, it was. I try to work in some way from reality, from something in the real world, literally anything. I try to make it as difficult a problem for myself as I can. Y’know, maybe, to do a painting about our conversation right now. What is the most visual aspect of this moment? I like thinking in this way...to think about memory visually. I try as hard as I can to find unconventional ways of seeing the physical world. So the source of the spark could be anything - a book I’ve read or something I’ve seen - but the process is a visual one of constant translation. To work at a painting and when it’s done, to know why you wanted to make it in the first place: that is important to me. Painting can make things clearer in this way; y’know, “NOW I know why I wanted to do that.”...
DR: Would certain things be more of a trigger for such a situation than others?
TN: Probably, but that speaks to our individuality, doesn’t it? Why do you look at this and I look at that? And, of course, it all changes over time as well. When I first started working in this way, like a lot of young artists, the sources often came from other paintings - Older paintings, y’know, Pisanello, or Titian or whoever - asking, why do you really love this painting? What is it? How does it work?
DR: In the form of using a detail or fragment from the painting?
TN: At first, it would have to be: I needed to have something to grab on to. But I’ll give you an example, one specific painting that was important to me, the Pisanello, ‘The Legend of St. Eustace’ in the National Gallery, London. I saw it ‘in the flesh’ and...well, every artist has these moments when you see something and you know everything about the painting: why it was painted, how it was painted, etc.. You feel you know every inch of the painting. I did a number of things to try and get what was there - to paint the narrative, paint the colour, paint the shapes - and to attempt to find where the power of the painting really resided. It wasn’t such a leap from doing this to using my own starting points in the world, and my own life in fact.
DR: It’s interesting that you don’t title any of the work, even though there is this emphasis on a source. Do you see the paintings as ultimately resistant to words, if that is at all possible?...
TN: Well, I would certainly like them to be. And, you know, I did start off titling them, but they then immediately became conundrums - y’know, how did this guy get from ‘Brown Cow’ to this? I think it’s hopeless for people to get the full meaning of practically anything. You look at a High Renaissance painting which appears crystal clear, and it’s just impenetrable....The longer you look, the stranger all the choices of the artist appear. We don’t really know what was meant. But what you do get is a believable machine that is capable of running independently of its intended meaning. The logic of the structures of the painting may remind a viewer of order that he senses in the visual world. Sometimes the flavour of a specific instance is readable. It happens often enough that I’m not surprised by it. What is important, though, is that the viewer sees this as more than just an arbitrary game. As I get older, however, the meanings tend to get more conflated, and I think it is more difficult to get what the painting is ‘about’, for me as much as for other people.
DR: So you’ve become less sure of painting as a direct vehicle for the transmission of particular meanings, or feelings or whatever?
TN: They feel increasingly impenetrable and, strangely enough, the part that people might ‘recognise’ or immediately latch on to, is often the least interesting thing about the painting. Somebody recently recognised an Oriental motif as a source for a painting....It was there, sure, but its identification isn’t terribly interesting or important. All of this high concept stuff in art - politics now, systematic painting then, my ideas about using the real world - all these ideas mean very little. The one goal is to make pictures that are rich, dense and interesting to look at. What irritates me about much political art, is that it’s not very interesting politics, it’s not, generally a sophisticated analysis. It’s more like reporting on a particular political position. With painting, we have one of the most sophisticated tools that civilisation has managed to come up with. We’ve got five hundred years of oil painting and twenty thousand years of image-making that we can draw upon and use. I often think that it’s just silly that people don’t pick up on this as a tool...which can result in something quite profound; something full of beauty.
DR: If you use history as a tool, is it also a situation of confronting that history, an active and critical engagement, without wanting to dramatise the situation?...


TN: You don’t let the tool take over. I mean, there is a big difference between using history and connoisseurship. I like art that sees history as a kind of menu of options: permissions to reach for something new. Why I believe in abstraction, is that I feel it increases the potential of painting. The history of abstract painting is just beginning, I’m convinced of that. You could argue that, within the tradition of flat image-making, abstraction is the dominant force, with all those ‘despised’ modes of pattern-making: the Byzantine, non-western traditions, and also medieval, religious art, etc.. And we could even go so far as suggesting that Western art after 1400 is really an aberration: a blip, a mistake in the history of abstraction. Then again, we talk about ‘abstraction’ so casually, often without really thinking it through. I think the situation of abstraction is wide open, it shouldn’t be some narrow definition...there is so much that can be done and will be done.
DR: You mean that abstract painting shouldn’t be bound by the baggage of rule-based conventionality like, for example, the Greenbergian inspired dogmas of the sixties? In this context, it’s interesting that your painting conjures up a kind of constant invention and singularity....
TN: Yes, well, that’s through working with a source in mind. It focuses and gives a specificity.
DR: The play with figure/ground relationships would also appear to be a characteristic?
TN: Well, I think one could say that it’s my weakness as much as a strength. Half of my education was from ex-Bauhaus people and so there was a lot of silly colour theory and a lot of figure/ground stuff that was floated around at that time, and this does pop up in the work. The better part of my education was, however, by Abstract Expressionist painters. The critic, Saul Ostrow, once had a very funny line; he said he thought I was doing “Abstract Expressionism in slow motion”- this pleased me very much.
DR: Yes. It does seem to catch something of the paintings and something of the method....
TN: I work on these things over a long period of time, often over a period of many years, until they are resolved and reach some kind of ‘conclusion’. And I don’t tinker, y’know....Each time they get back on the easel, they are scraped down or a fresh wash of colour is laid over the whole thing....So pretty much what you see, is the last work I did on it - totally, that is. I very rarely go back merely to ‘correct’ or adjust a colour or whatever; it’s generally a total reworking.
DR: Is the colour also rooted in a particular perceptual memory?
TN: Colour is very strange. I think it doesn’t play as large a part in our visual memory as most of us believe. Maybe we’re suffering some kind of hangover from Post-Impressionism. I find it disturbingly imprecise. It’s nice to use, though, to separate one shape from another...[laughs]. I think I’m pretty casual about colour. Sometimes it does have connections to the source, sometimes it’s more arbitrary.
DR: I was looking at a painting of yours only the other day and I particularly enjoyed the colour; it glowed. Yet the colour was incredibly muted, murky almost, if each form were taken separately; and yet despite this, there was a subtle activation overall. This suggested a very conscious control, far from casual in fact.
TN: When I first started making imagistic paintings they were, originally, way back, on a much larger scale; very large in fact. I remember thinking about initial decisions - like, say, the colour of a ground - blue, I thought, “I’ll paint it blue.” - And it would take you three fucking days to get it down. And just as you’re almost done covering it, you’ll think to yourself, “Y’know, this looks like shit.” And it’d take three more days to get rid of it. Now, working much smaller, I can put something down as capriciously as I like and wipe it off immediately if it doesn’t work. I’ll try anything. Through serendipity, I can come up with all kinds of things I couldn’t have come up with intellectually.
DR: How does this acceptance of the ‘serendipity’ of the painting process square itself with the notion of addressing a specific source?
TN: It’s a little schizophrenic, but I like to let the two aspects, accident and intention, bounce off each other. I try not to be continually conscious of that source throughout the work on a particular piece; at a certain stage, I try to put it aside and just pursue the logic of the paint. You have to ask - does this actually end up speaking to the source? I’m sure there is a level of subconscious interaction that is almost like free association. But the goal is to make a good painting, and it’s almost like the painting will demand its own terms. There is always this discrepancy between something figured in the imagination and how it will act physically. You take a particular yellow - you might have one in mind - and you put it down on the canvas and it doesn’t do what you intended. Or a shape might not function in actuality the way you thought. You might shift it around; take a bit off here or there. One thing is for sure though: I couldn’t have imagined these things from the start, working without a subject. There is a marvellous essay by Robert Graves, called ‘Food for Centaurs’, where he begins by quoting Alexander Pope, who says something to the effect that what is great about poetry, is these wonderful, unanswered questions that abound: what songs did the sirens sing to Ulysses? What food did the centaurs eat? etc., and the fact that you can never answer them or catch them. Graves says that Pope has got it exactly wrong; what is great about poetry is that you can answer those questions if you apply yourself as hard as you can. You can come up with satisfying answers, and answers that speak coherently to what the question was....I like that argument. Likewise in painting, I am intrigued by questions that seem, at first glance, almost unanswerable in that medium: how do you do a painting of a newspaper story, a song, or something ephemeral, like a particular moment or whatever?
DR: How would you actually go about working on such material and enable the source to inform a painting?
TN: I’ll give you an example. My last show, as both an experiment and a challenge, attempted to make a kind of an autobiography. I thought it might be interesting to organise it spatially. I’ve spent my entire life in the Hudson Valley. Everything important in my life has happened in a hundred mile stretch between my studio in Lower Manhattan and my house in upstate New York. I divided that distance into twenty parts - five mile increments - and tried to come up with a painting for each step...kind of a crazy idea, but I wanted to try it. So each painting spoke to my past in a specific way, and I attempted to paint about things I knew or had heard about directly. It was a very interesting experience, half the paintings were terrific...[laughs]... the other half were okay too. But to go back to your question, y’know I don’t like to describe or outline how a source might relate to a painting; it becomes too verbal, too descriptive and confuses the whole thing. But just to give you an idea, though: one image starts with an apple tossed into a fire, the white flesh swelling in the heat and breaking through the tight, red skin. Then it gets conflated with a Polish Eagle...then the whole thing takes on a sort of landscape scale. That’s how it begins, but before it’s done twenty other things get shoe-horned into it. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like to identify the sources for the audience, because so many ideas cross your mind; you’re working towards one specific point, but so many things might be referenced from many different angles.
DR: Did you want this group of paintings to be read as a narrative, almost sequentially?
TN: No. Absolutely not. I just wanted to generate twenty interesting paintings. End of story.
DR: But you did say ‘related’ pieces. Do you ever encourage interaction between paintings through particular hangings, getting a sense of ensemble from the works?
TN: No. In fact that approach drives me nuts. In the past I’ve been encouraged to do this and I think it’s dreadful - it looks awful. I want these pictures to stand on their own. In fact, I want as little interaction between them as possible. Because these pictures are smaller by contemporary standards, people often want to join them together and see them in groups. People still tend to confuse size with importance. But here we are, ending up talking about size again. There are so many issues that the paintings address other than this....I remember seeing - around 1975, I think it was - a show of Ray Parker’s work, a very interesting artist actually. And there was a painting here that was about thirty-five feet long - thirty-five feet! It was though it was saying, “Call yourself a collector? Collect this!” It was this situation I wanted to get a way from, which I felt was both gross and absurd. Y’know, nobody spends as much time looking at our work as we do; no matter how much someone supports or admires us. Whether it’s the people who write about us, or whatever, they’re not going to put in anything near the thousands and thousands of hours we spend staring at these things in our studios, trying to figure them out and to get to know them. I figured that getting them into a domestic environment where somebody might encounter them every day, where their presence could be slowly experienced, then this might give them the chance of being seen closer to the way I see them.
DR: As you said earlier, this was a political decision, and it’s an interesting reversal of the tendency towards the mural-sized picture in the late forties, again a political act.
TN: Sure. It’s different politics; more anarchistic and individualistic. Nothing to do with the State or the collective in that way.
DR: It’s a kind of micro politics, perhaps, in your case, where a certain type of openness is sought after: where the painting becomes liberated by the source and, at the same time, unfettered by certain conventional paradigms. There is a sense in much contemporary abstract painting that certain taboos have been lifted. That’s why I think your work has, for me, echoes of experiments in abstraction that have largely been forgotten: early Russian abstraction, for example the Ender family, or Rozanova, maybe even some German painting of the immediate post-war period. We could say here some interesting artists had been cast aside by a relentless mainstream. Your work recuperates some of those quirky approaches to space and form....
TN: Yes. You know, I don’t mind having my work having these echoes or looking like somebody else’s work - I should be so lucky, right? But what might separate me from some of my brother and sister abstractionists, is a denial of irony. I’ve always sought to cut the theory to a minimum and knock the ironic, or the distanced approach. I want to suggest that if you can imagine something, you can act on it. I’ll give you an example. When I was making systematic work, I remember doing two paintings - both dashes and dots, and red, yellow, blue - great colour idea, yeah? [laughs] I did one in a detached manner, on auto-pilot, you know, music playing etc.; the other, with something in mind. The latter was so much more successful, so much more energised as an image, that I’ve been working this way ever since. You know, if we think of people making work outside of the ‘profession’- whether it’s criminals, the mentally ill, naive painters or whoever - these people haven’t spent years studying painting as a craft, yet can come up with results that are startling and sophisticated in a visual way. And the reason is crystal clear: it’s because they don’t do things without having a reason for doing them.
DR: This reminds me of Arnold Schoenberg, who differentiated between his music as a crafted discipline, and his paintings as pure, emotional response, direct and unschooled....
TN: Beautiful paintings, wonderful paintings....I saw them at the Modern some years ago.
DR: He could have actually taken lessons from some of the most illustrious of his contemporaries: Kandinsky, Kokoschka etc., but declined....
TN: Didn’t want to screw it up, yeah? Well, there’s something to be said for that. I mean, on another level, if we look more broadly at the present situation, then I think abstractionists are not getting much support from the institutions; but the painters are out there. This might be a good thing, because the institutions are so debased at present - I don’t think they are catching what is really interesting in contemporary art. It’s not their fault, really. They need clear ideas, heroic figures, slogans. Look how Abstract Expressionism gets boiled down to five or six names, when what was so extraordinary about the movement, was its depth. It was a real milieu. The issue today is personal freedom - maybe it always is - and how do you measure its success or failure? I remember when Richard Serra started making sculpture: the thrown lead pieces, the scatter pieces, the felt ones, and you thought, wow, this guy is acting like he is inventing sculpture. And in a way, he was. Now, I think a lot of painters act like they are inventing painting, and I think that’s great. It's a free enough moment to do this.


© David Ryan / Thomas Nozkowski 1997